Haven’t had a moment to blog this week – so almost don’t know where to begin!
Parliamentwise – lobbies from the science community concerned about the looming Comprehensive Spending Review (everyone is worried in every sector to be quite frank) the argument forcefully put about investing in our future and cutting off our growth if we lose our cutting edge in science and lobbied in advance of the back bench committee debate on contamination of blood products.
I declare an interest in the blood products debate as someone very close to me has haemophilia and has been infected by the treatment given to him by the NHS. Although the motion itself didn’t pass – mainly because it had a price tag attached to it of £3billion and no government could just vote it through like that – it still succeeded in that a review of certain of Lord Archer’s recommendations in his Independent Report on the issue will now happen – and before Christmas. There are many aspects of life for those who have been infected additional to money: dentistry (has to be special because of bleeding and infections); insurance (can’t get life or travel insurance often) and other unfairnesses – such as those infected with Hepatitis C do not get compensation to match those infected with HIV. So – many wrongs still to be righted.
The ‘bonfire of the quangos’ saw many bodies axed. Two in my own department of Equalities were in line: the Equalities Commission (saved but will be radically reformed) and the Women’s National Commission terminated. The important thing about the WNC is that the function will continue (bringing the voices of women to government) and be expanded but using more direct techniques. I know a lot of women’s organisations will be upset by this – but after transition – they should be reassured that women’s voices will be heard louder and clearer and more directly than before.
I went to speak at the launch of ‘Communities, Councils & a Low Carbon Future’ – a new book out by Alexis Rowell – who is an amazing force majeure in terms of driving this agenda forward. Alexis was sustainability champion as a LibDem councillor in Camden – but has now taken to driving this forward in even bigger ponds. For anyone who knows Alexis – they will know that he is relentless in pursuit of the green agenda. There was a theme running through all the speeches about Alexis – that he was either a ‘pain in the arse’, ‘a pain in the neck’ or just a pain – but in a good way.
Alexis is so passionate that it colours every action and interaction he has. For example – going to a restaurant for dinner. What is the provenance of the meat, which farm, how farmed and what was the cow’s name! We are lucky that there is an Alexis – for without that force – things don’t change. Go Alexis!
Of course – tuition fees and Lord Browne’s report was probably the most contentious issue of the week. The report suggests that the cap be lifted which would result in fees going up to £6000 or more. The fear being that this will become an elite occupation for the haves – and those from middle backgrounds (just above the poorest who wil be protected) will be put off – or will only go to universities that they can afford rather than the very best ones which may charge as much as £12,000 per annum.
The ending of the principle of free education by Labour with the introduction of tuition fees was in my view definitely the beginning of the end. In the current economic climate – it was inevitable that the proposals by Browne (commissioned by Labour) would recommend removal of the cap – and both Labour and Conservatives would almost certainly have done so. For the Liberal Democrats it poses a real problem – to do with the totemic nature of a commitment ultimately to scrap tuition fees and a fundamental belief that education should be free for all.
Vince Cable, ironically, is the man in charge of any new proposals and he faced the House this week too. There is no doubt that he has been working flat out to make the proposals as progressive as is humanly possible – given that students will have to pay for their course. Poorer students will be protected, pay back is when earnings reach a certain level – and really importantly – part time courses will come into line. Previously they were not included and therefore it made it very hard for people who wanted to change their circumstances to afford to do part time courses.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies pronouncement was that “the proposed reforms to repayments are highly progressive and ensure that poorest 30% of graduates are better off than under the current system, whilst ensuring that the richest 30% of graduates pay off their loans in full.”
So – there is about six weeks to go before this comes to decision time. I still do not subscribe to the 50% target Labour set for university entrants. Mind you – I was a great fan of Shirley Williams’ polytechnics – which I thought a brilliant microcosm of the world with all sorts of people mixing on a variety of courses of different standards from degree – to HND. In fact – the first campaign I ever fought was to stop Oxford Polytechnic becoming a uni. I did well at the time – but left after three years – and of course – now it is Oxford Brookes University. I still think I was right!
So – the Liberal Democrats (including me) will have three choices: support the new proposals when finalised – which are just about as good as they can get in terms of being progressive; abstain (the coalition agreement negotiated this opt out as it would have been very hard to get LibDems to sign up to coalition without it) or vote against.
Lastly – have just come back from knocking on doors in Hornsey ward as part of our Liberal Democrat campaign for a 20mph speed limit on residential roads in Haringey. Everyone seemed very keen on this campaign – and more generally – still keen on the coalition despite the looming spending review.